Root of rage and season of migration to the north

Saturday February 2 2019

Cover of the 1969 book

Cover of the 1969 book "Season of Migration to the North" by Tayeb Salih. PHOTO | PETER KIMANI 


The fierce patriotic fervour that permeated the social and political sphere in January, in the aftermath of a terror attack on Nairobi’s affluent suburb of Westlands, quickly dissipated when claims swirled that some of the terror suspects were fellow citizens.

Homegrown terror, after all, is not a familiar lexicon in the burgeoning terror "industry," the sort that’s driven by America’s right in Washington, providing a ready market for their military hardware and leverage in securing regional strategic partnerships.

Kenya is a valued ally in this network, contributing part of the 22,000 troops deployed to Somalia under the auspices of the African Union. Further, Nairobi, is the site of unlimited experimentations on governance: It is hard to keep track of the latest initiative to install a "government" in Mogadishu.

These dynamics, of course, changed in October 2011, when Kenyan troops entered Somalia to root out extremist elements that had made it a habit of sneaking into Kenyan territory to snatch tourists from their lairs, or slaughtering students because they were easy targets, before fleeing to their hideouts in Somalia.

While terrorists will always find a reason to justify their deranged acts, Kenya’s continued presence in Somalia has become a refrain in explaining those attacks. The problem with this narrative is that this is not conventional warfare, as AMISOM troops are dealing with an inordinate enemy with unclear terms of engagement or disengagement.

But the picture gets complicated when fellow citizens are reported to have joined the rank and file of the Al-Shabaab, turned into a devil’s doomsday device, designed to detonate on command.


Literature provides useful insights about the motivations for such individuals, and none so powerfully as the Sudanese novelist Tayed Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.

The "north" in the novel is particularly useful as a geographic and metaphoric locale: Somalia sits to the east of Kenya, where radicalised youths have reportedly been sneaking to receive training from the Shabaab militants, who still control swathes of central and southern Somalia.

First published in Arabic in 1966, and translated into English in 1969, Season of Migration to the North has enjoyed multiple rebirths. In 2001, a panel of Arab writers and critics hailed it as the most important Arab novel of the 20th century. Critics return to it regularly to better understand confounding conundrums in contemporary politics.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the rise of the doctrine of "clash of civilisations," whose limiting lens reduced the argument to "them versus us," a leading critic from East Africa, Peter Nazareth, invoked this novel to his students in Iowa. He proposed a reading of Season of Migration to the North if they wanted to understand the mind of a terrorist.

Nazareth says he found striking parallels between the brilliant young Sudanese student in the novel, who is sent to England to complete his education, and the suicide bombers who were educated in the West. All plot their vengeance against the systems, with dramatic disaster to everyone, including themselves.

This instruction, however, was misunderstood by some students, who told someone who told someone else, and who in turn told the police that their good professor knew something about the 9/11 terrorists!

Nazareth was questioned by FBI agents over the characters in the novel, an absurdity that calls to mind a not-too-dissimilar incident when local police were assigned to apprehend Matigari, the fictional character in Ngugi’s allegory by the same title, in 1986!

Season of Migration to the North is many things to different people. It can be read as "writing back" to Empire, subverting European colonial discourse about Africa. Others pick from the book echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as the two novels utilise the journey motif, with their main protagonists embarking on journeys into the unknown.

"However, Salih subverts the conventions of the literary genre," contests the Sudanese writer Laila Lalai, in her introduction to a recent reissue of the novel. "Instead of having a white man travel to the far depths of the Congo, he has a black Arab-African man journey to the very heart of England."


Yet others see the parallels between Season of Migration to the North and Shakespeare’s play, Othello, in which the Moor wins the fair lady partly because of the sob stories he has told her. Similarly, Salih’s main character, Sa’eed, conflates stereotypes of his experience, "tropical climes, cruel sun, purple horizons" to win English women, and there are quite a few.

Told as a story within a story, the unnamed narrator returns to his village on the banks of the Nile in the Sudan, after a long sojourn in Europe. It is the 1960s, the heady days of independence and the infectious optimism for the future. Among his network of old friends, he finds an intriguing, unfamiliar person, Mustafa Sa’eed.

Unknown to the narrator, Sa’eed is also a "been-to," and it’s a matter of time before he unburdens himself to the narrator with the story of his life in Europe, which is punctuated by episodes of sexual violence towards European women, and what precipitates his return to his native land.

"In his journey to the North, he is not driven just by hatred toward the West, but also by love, love to possess the civilisation of his coloniser," writes another critic in a monograph, Season of Migration to the North: Characterisation and Symbolism.

Armed with a doctorate in poetry and eager to make a contribution in building the young nation of Sudan, Sa’eed finds himself shunted to the periphery, the only available space being to teach pre-Islamic poetry in primary schools.

Sa’eed then disappears and the narrator has the onerous task of figuring out the meaning of his narrative, as well step forward to perform a role that Sa’eed has bequeathed him.

But Sa’eed’s disillusionment represents not just an Arab-Western angst but a universal cry by world youth for inclusion and equity.

"Salih predicts the rise of an authoritarian bourgeois class that will pick up where the colonial powers left off," writes Lalami. "Our great tragedy is that we continue to be entirely heedless to the warnings of history."

Nothing supports this viewpoint better than the plunder of the National Youth Service, among other public entities that are meant to safeguard the future of Kenyan youth through training and employment. This has nullified the notion of education as a vehicle for social advancement, pushing the youth to the margins of society where poverty and depravation lurks.

Many feel they have nothing to lose but their chains. "I came as an invader into your very homes," confesses Sa’eed. And so did the six terrorists who descended on Riverside last month, some of whom were our compatriots.

Dr Kimani teaches journalism at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University. He is chair of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing panel of judges.